S05E04: Jay Desan, Co-founder of BoomGrow, Malaysia

There are very few agritech companies and they are largely male driven. It’s a very male-driven industry. And I find that fascinating because most of the people who buy our produce tend to be women. Oh, they are men who buy as well. But a large chunk of our produce is actually bought by women. So I see having a female founder at a distinct dimension to BoomGrow!

jay desan

Today’s episode is with an entrepreneur from Malaysia, Jay Desan who is the co-founder of BoomGrow, an agritech company that grows clean greens such as romaine and lettuce. 

This mother of two and former lawyer never expected she would be in the tech space but she did know a lot about sustainability. She started by studying for her Master’s degree followed by a PhD and started studying sustainability “when it wasn’t a thing”.

jay desan boom grow agritech malaysia
She loves this quote from by Sai Baba, “Life is a song, sing it. Life is a game, play it.
Life is a challenge, meet it. Life is a dream, realize it. Life is a sacrifice, offer it. Life is love, enjoy it.”

While ESG is now commonly spoken about in corporate circles, back then it was new. (ESG refers to Environmental, Social and Governance, the three key factors that measure the sustainability and ethical impact of a business or company.)

Jay said that she spent many years in the UK  studying and understanding corporate responsibility in human rights which she later expanded to re-imagining the corporation. It made her realise how shifts and changes can happen very incrementally, starting with one person but once it’s combined with multi-stakeholders, transformation can happen. She came back to Malaysia with the idea of making a difference but with the idea of staying in academia. 

We largely grow leafy greens microgreens and so that’s really the focus even globally. That’s where vertical farming sits in a space. And a lot of the produce that we grow really cuts down the food miles because traditionally spinach or kale need to come from Japan or Australia. That’s like many thousand kilometers. So we’re cutting down those carbon miles by growing them right in the city.

She began working in the sustainability area with companies but realized just as quickly that broken systems don’t make changes happen. Structural problems hounded her and she became frustrated at how food was grown and distributed.  

In Malaysia, food is usually grown far away from the communities and added to that, grown with plenty of toxic chemicals. She and her business partners decided they needed to do something about it and took it upon themselves to start BoomGrow. 

As an organization with the kind of hiring we do today, we don’t look like a traditional farming company. We hire mechanical engineers, electrical engineers. We hire people, who’ve got software background, and then we bring in the biotechnology. So we’re bringing different people together but the academic curriculum has not caught up with that. So that’s another challenge that we see as we grow as an organization that the universities need to catch up in terms of where the students are coming from.

On a personal level, Jay found that it was so expensive to find good quality and fresh produce that didn’t cost so much. She said it made no sense. One had to be rich to eat well and that was a major frustration for her as a mother. 

Jay explains that they grow vegetables indoors in containers with technology that is set up to control variables such as water, light and humidity to maximize their output. With this setup, they are able to produce consistent yields for the supply chain. 

She is incredibly inspired by ​​Nelson Mandela for “teaching us the power of kindness and my late grandmother whose resilience in raising children and maintaining a tight-knit family in the face of multiple economic challenges continues to inspire me.”

Her favourite book of all time is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro because “no book bites into the illusions we want to believe in better.” 

Connect with her: www.boomgrowfarms.com

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